What is the Difference between Paganism and Witchcraft?

Posted on February 2, 2017 at 1:30 PM

When is a Witch not a Witch,” wrote Robert Cochrane (aka Roy Bowers) in the 1960’s, his answer was “when he or she is a pagan”? Maxine Sanders also claimed that she was not a pagan at a conference in 2000. What is more other long standing Witches have claimed that Initiatory Witchcraft is different to Paganism. What do they mean? Is their a difference between a Witch and a Pagan?

Initiatory Witchcraft is the mystical side of paganism. It is a mystery tradition in the classical sense of the word

However, there is some confusion about what the word mystery means especially in relation to the Western Mystery Tradition. It can be argued that the word can be used in three ways.

Firstly it could refer to a secret kept from the profane by people in the know, i.e. secrets kept by the Free Masons, or particular myths or rituals in the Craft which are kept hidden from the outside world.

The second meaning refers to something that is unknown. This is the sort of mysteries that scientists are very good at solving. It is also the type of thing investigated in Agatha Christie Novels or by Sherlock Holmes.

Finally, mystery refers to an experience that cannot be described in everyday language. The French existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel distinguished between a problem, something that blocks his passage, and a mystery, in other words something in which he is caught up with. A Mystery is something that you participated in rather than something you solve. The mystery of mortality or the mystery of life herself are not solvable problems with a solution to be discovered but rather are existential qualities that are to be lived and experienced.

However the experience can never adequately be put into words only hinted at in poetic metaphor. In fact the word mystery comes from the Greek verb Musterion which means ‘to close the mouth’ which is an apt expression for experiences that transcend our ability to describe them in literal language.


While the word mystery can be used in the first two senses in Wicca and Witchcraft, it is the third meaning of the word to which has most relevance to Initiatory Craft which is part of the Western Mystery Tradition. As such the Mystery traditions seek to give the initiate direct experience of Divine; they give an awareness of connectedness, their place within the wider unfolding patterns of Wyrd.

Within mystery traditions there is no separation between Nature, Humanity and Divine (we are using the words Divine, Divinity and Numinous as adjectives rather than nouns). All is connected; all is one system- at least in a mythological sense rather than ontological one, which is a metaphysical speculation.

If nature is numinous and we are equating numinous with Divinity (as Rudolph Otto does) this suggests that Divinity is not just the nice bits of nature but all of it; fascination and terror, beauty and horror.

As such training in mystical traditions seeks to give and open up the initiate to the mystical experience, that realisation of ecstasy, of non-separation, of connectedness with Numinous, transcendental experience, and so called ‘cosmic consciousnesses. It is “The Divine in which we move and have our being”, to quote Paul Tillich. It can never be described directly; if you can describe it then it was not a mystical experience. Such experiences can only be hinted at in metaphor such as myth, ritual and symbols.

According to the psychologist and philosopher William James, all religions have their origins in mystical experience. It is when metaphors such as myth and ritual become ends in themselves that religions are formed. Religions such as those in Paganism generally see a separation between the Divine (in this case a noun) and humanity, in other words they are distinct entities. As such it is appropriate to use a transactional mode to describe the relationship, with the worshipper being in the child ego state and the god being in the parent ego state. Many pagans expect things of their Gods such as the answering of prayers and keeping them safe. They in turn feel that they must do certain things like enacting ritual and living a moral life that will help them curry divine favour.

In contrast mystical traditions meet the Divine on an equal footing, after all we are all part of that Divine, aren’t we?

Myths, rituals and symbols are used in mystical traditions, but the initiate never forgets that they are not ends in themselves. Rather they are a set of tools and a language to help communicate the experience of the mysteries, to celebrate and re-experience them. The initiate cultivates a sense of profound meaning within themselves, their own semantic landscape and as such these meanings become far more valuable than anything that is ‘externally’ imposed. The initiate like an artist builds up meanings to the symbols and myths, but understands that they are metaphors or the real experience. They understand that the signpost to Stowmarket is not Stowmarket itself.

Mystical traditions require training from a facilitator who has had experience of the mysteries. How else can the trainer show the neophyte (beginner) the road to having these numinous experiences for themselves? The Western Mystery Tradition of which the Craft is a part can be seen as reversed engineered mysticism and as such training can be a long process. Tantric and Taoist Masters look at it in terms of decades. Many in the initiatory Craft say at least two years training before initiation and even then it takes years to get anywhere. Mystery traditions are not quick fixes, they are lifelong processes. They require balanced personalities, as the road to the mysteries is fraught with peril and pitfalls. Mystery traditions, which used various skills and techniques, can be likened far more to an Art or a Craft than a religion.

Where Craft differs from other Western mystical traditions (e.g. Hermetic Qabbalah), is that it builds upon a nature paradigm in the myths and rituals that it uses. Both inner and outer nature; it deals with the mysteries of birth, sacrifice, sex and death.

Craft initiates as members of the Western Mystery Tradition participate in the real world, and meeting the challenges of life. It is what Gurdjieff would describe as a path of the Hearth. As such the Western Mystery Traditions are not an escape from life; rather they underpin it and provide paradigms in which to build up its meaning.

So what is the difference between a Pagan and a Witch?

The goal and aims of the Pagan religions are to honour the Gods.  One of the goals of initiatory Witchcraft is to become God, the same aim as Ceremonial Magic. I would argue that Iwhile nitiatory Witchcraft is the mystical side of Paganism, it is much closer to the Western Mystery Tradition. It uses basically the same techniques as the WMT and its aims are exactly the same.


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